Conceiçāo Maria Viana
To listen to Conceição Maria Viana, a descendant of escaped slaves, is to hear the voice of Brazil’s once silenced past, buried deep in the forest amid the babassu palm trees.
Viana's grandfather, Benedito Zacarias Serra, was a runaway slave who founded one of thousands of clandestine settlements known as quilombos before slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888.
Today, 126 years after slavery ended, Serra's quilombo lives on as a testament to the resilience of Afro-Brazilian culture, with about 100 families celebrating many of the same traditions — and facing many of the same challenges — from when Santo Antônio dos Pretos was founded.
Most quilombos are Portuguese- or Portuguese creole-speaking but a variety of African-influenced dialects have endured in pockets of cultural resistance, which have also held on to traditional African structures of community leaders and elders.
Some estimates suggest there were up to 5,000 quilombo communities across 24 states during 17th and 18th century colonial Brazil, with many hidden in remote parts of the thick jungle to conceal them from slavemasters and officials. They ranged from just a few dozen inhabitants to the biggest quilombo, Palmares, where the population reached an estimated 20,000 people after the Dutch invasion of Brazil. Palmares was invaded by the army in 1694 and its leader, Zumbi dos Palmares, killed on Nov. 20, which is now Black Awareness Day.
Today, the government’s Brazil Quilombola Program has mapped more than 3,500 communities, and provided many with land titles — a right enshrined in the 1988 Constitution — as well as social support, including bringing electricity to 20,000 quilombo homes between 2004 and 2008.
In a 2009 report, the special secretary for the promoting of racial equality said the land titles were a “historical redress.”
“In a society like Brazil’s, marred by centuries of widespread discrimination, it is not enough that the state refrain from discrimination in its laws,” it said.
But while many residents of the villages, known as quilombolas, now own the land they live on, some are still living without clean water, and with limited access to health care and education.
Viana’s small community of Santo Antônio dos Pretos, in the northern state of Maranhão, is cut into a clearing and surrounded by swamps and dense forest, where goats and dogs roam between the homes made of mud, branches and palm thatch.
It is linked by a single potholed dirt road to the nearest town of Codó, 30 miles away, and cut off from the rest of the world whenever rain makes the road impassable.
Santo Antônio dos Pretos is marooned in another era, frozen in time and swallowed by the towering palms and tamarind trees.
“I was born and raised here,” said Viana, 82, at the home she shares with her daughter Suzete Viana, 62.
Their simple mud house is neatly divided into three rooms, all cast with an orange hue from the sun filtering through the clay tiles. At the back there is a simple mud stove, embers still burning from Suzete Viana’s cooking. In the bedroom, a narrow bed is pressed against the wall and a hammock strung across the middle of the room.
Viana said that during her grandfather’s time, officials would raid the quilombos, hunting escaped slaves and returning them to their owners.
Quilombos were not only refuges from the brutal slave quarters, called senzalas, but they were also places where escaped slaves could freely practice banned religions with African roots, including Terecô, a form of worship carried out through music and dance.
“All the cultural dances and music started in the slave quarters, but the Terecô dance happened only in the forest where the quilombos settled because it was banned,” Viana said.
Viana recounted a family legend of Santo Antônio dos Pretos’ resilience and strength.
“There was a man called Lieutenant Vitorino who knew Terecô took place here and so he came here to Santo Antônio to stop the music.”